Author Archive

Art in History   2 comments

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The Night Portrait by Laura Morelli has four narrators: two from the Renaissance and two associated with World War II. The result is a gripping story about the importance of art and its redemptive qualities — both as masterpieces are created and later rescued.

Edith is a German art restorer for a museum in Munich at the outbreak of the war. She’s ordered to catalog the artwork confiscated in Poland by the Nazis. Most of the pieces are destined for a museum Hitler plans to build, but high ranking officers keep some for their own private collections. This includes a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci.

The painting is the link to the Renaissance. Cecilia Gallerani recounts her life as the mistress of the lord of Milan in the late 1400s; DaVinci, the other narrator in this time period, is commissioned to paint her portrait.

In 1944-45, the war is nearing its end and there’s work to be done. Dominic, an Army GI, is part of a squad charged with guarding a small group of the Monuments Men, the allied troops trying to locate the hidden, stolen art.

The connections among the four narrators works well. Each chapter/speaker is clearly identified, not only by name and year, but by distinctions in voice, descriptions of the era.

Morelli addresses several issues, including Edith’s sense of guilt, Dominic’s discovery of purpose, Cecilia’s realization she will never be the lady of the manor, and DaVinci’s efforts to establish himself not only as a painter, but an inventor.

The Night Portrait

Four Bookmarks

William Morrow, 2020

455 pages

Mother and Son   Leave a comment

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Shuggie Bain, the title character of Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, is heartbreaking. But, don’t avoid it. The characters, notably Shuggie and his mother Agnes, are vividly portrayed with hopes and flaws.

The story is bookended by 1992 when Shuggie is a young man. By contrast, most of the narrative occurs in the 1980s.  The seamy parts of Glasgow are brought to life, complete with Scottish dialect, out-of-work miners, alcoholics and low-rent housing. The setting is as much a character as Shuggie and others.

Agnes is an alcoholic whose efforts at sobriety are rare. She left her first husband for Shuggie’s father, who in turn, leaves her. Her two older children find ways to escape the toxic home life, so Shuggie remains to care for his mother while dealing with her neglect. He’s optimistic she’ll change and be a proper parent. He also believes if this happens, he’ll become a normal boy.

Shuggie is effeminate, so he’s bullied, but never understands the insults nor reasons he’s taunted. In this regard, Douglas has crafted a beautiful character whose innocence is his downfall. When coupled with his devotion to Agnes as her caregiver, he’s not left with much of a childhood.

Because of her beauty, Agnes believes she deserves more in life but does nothing to attain it. Although it’s evident to everyone around her, she refuses to acknowledge her alcoholism. She’s also certain the right man will come along to save her. In fact, he’s been at her side all his life.

Shuggie Bain

Four Bookmarks

Grove Press, 2020

430 pages

Testing Maternal Instincts   3 comments

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As disturbing as The Push is by Ashley Audrain, it’s nearly impossible to put down. It’s not exactly like watching a disaster unfold before your eyes, but it’s close.

Blythe Connor’s mother was not an exemplary maternal role model; although they never met, neither was Blythe’s grandmother. Audrain offers some background about these women, which helps explains the younger woman’s anxiety about becoming a mother herself. The pressure is magnified by her husband, Fox, who’s certain she’ll be a Mother of the Year candidate.

After their daughter, Violet, is born, Fox is the parent of choice;  Mother and daughter never bond. Initially, Blythe is certain it’s her fault; however, as Violet gets older, Blythe becomes convinced she’s not entirely to blame. Something isn’t right with Violet, and Fox refuses to acknowledge it.

Blythe and Fox’s marriage falls apart, something revealed early in the novel.  Audrain uses a direct address approach to Fox for Blythe to explain her side of the story. She recounts falling in love with him in college, the early days of their marriage, and Violet’s birth which marks the beginning of problems.  She tries to rationalize the issues with Violet are only in her imagination. When the couple has a second child, Blythe is surprised by her deep feelings for him.

Audrain has crafted a profound, often dark, family portrait. Blythe is a sympathetic character, but the haunting question is whether or not she’s a reliable narrator. The result is compelling.

The Push

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Pamela Dorman Books, 2021

307 pages

Family Ties That Bind and Blind   Leave a comment

THE LAST ROMANTICS

The Last Romantics begins in 2079 when Fiona Skinner, a poet and climate awareness advocate, has finished giving a talk and opens the floor for questions. At 102, Fiona is taken aback when asked about the inspiration for one of her best-known poems. Her memory takes readers to 1981, the year her father died.

Fiona is the youngest of the four Skinner siblings: Renee, Joe and Caroline. Joe, the boy wonder, is idolized by the entire family.

Their father dies when Fiona is 4. His death affects each family member differently, but all recall their mother being emotionally absent. Fiona is too young to remember much about her father.  The siblings are close, protective and blind to each other’s faults, especially Joe’s until they can no longer be ignored.

Tara Conklin has created an epic in the sense the story spans nearly a century. The siblings relationships with each other, their mother, friends and love interests (some fleeting, others less so) are a combination of airing dirty laundry as much as highlights in a family holiday newsletter, but is more enjoyable to read.

The gripping narrative moves from childhood’s halcyon days to the heartbreak of unrealized dreams. Even at its most depressing moments (and, spoiler alert, there are several) the Skinner kids are ones you wish you knew. As with most families, their lives are full of joy and tragedy, humor and tears. Fiona’s account of her youth, like most memories is cloudy at times, but beautifully vivid at others.

The Last Romantics

Four+ Bookmarks

William Morrow, 2019

352 pages

Cast as Stereotypes   2 comments

Clever, timely and important are what come to mind after reading Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu.

Written as a script for a fictional television show, along with some background about the characters/actors, the novel follows Willie Wu in his quest for the prime part of Kung Fu Guy in the police show “Black and White.” He, and his Chinatown neighbors, family and friends have been relegated to roles such as Generic Asian Man, Young Asian Man, Delivery Guy, Pretty Oriental Flower and Old Asian Woman, among other stereotypes.

The setting is mostly the Golden Palace, where the show is in constant production. Willie lives in an SRO, as do the other Asian cast members, viewed as interchangeable, above the restaurant/set. His parents live one floor below him in the unit where he grew up. They, too, have had various roles throughout the years.

Yu establishes the scene, the characters involved and provides production notes. Even his acknowledgements adhere to the theme. It doesn’t take long to realize the name of the television show is another example of racism with the main characters reflecting a hierarchy based on the “Black and White” title.

The script-like approach takes some getting used, but ultimately works well. The Wu family’s past isn’t part of the TV show, but is a major element of the narrative. Although the theme is serious, Yu injects humor and romance as Willie faces the dilemma faced by many regardless of race: attaining a dream but at what sacrifice?

Interior Chinatown

Four Bookmarks

Pantheon Books, 2020

270 pages

Checking Out Life’s Choices   Leave a comment

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The Midnight Library is a point between life and death rather than a repository for books. The premise of Matt Haig’s novel is based on life choices with all of its regrets and often overlooked joys. Some decisions are major and others less so, but all have an impact. This is not a duh discovery, though. Instead, Haig offers, through Nora Seed, the opportunity to experience parts of her unchosen lives until she finds the one she’s actually meant to live.

Depressed, alone and uninspired, Nora decides she’s better off dead.  Immediately following her suicide attempt, she finds herself at the Midnight Library which her high school librarian oversees. There are no other patrons and all of the shelves contain books about the different paths Nora might have taken based on her actual family, interests and relationships.

Thinking about the literal road not taken (yes, Frost’s poem is referenced) is engaging. There’s an element of mystery as Nora opens one book after another while trying to the find the right life. Although she considers many, time is running out. Nora needs to make a decision before her death becomes a point of no return.

Nora’s successes and pitfalls involve the usual: love, friends, family and career choices. With each book she opens, Nora learns more about herself and the world around her. There’s a sense of Ebenezer Scrooge’s experience here. Nora gets a wake-up call regarding her life, which, as it turns out, isn’t such a bad thing for anyone

 The Midnight Library

Four Bookmarks     

Viking, 2020

288 pages                                                                                                                          

Rock n’Roll Never Dies   Leave a comment

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Drugs, sex and rock n’ roll are major players in this novel recounting the history of a popular ‘70s band Daisy Jones & the Six.  Taylor Jenkins Reid’s work is formatted like a documentary film with perspectives provided by the various personalities involved in the band and its past. Although the story may sound similar to that of actual groups, it is fiction.

Initially, the style is off-putting. There’s no single narrator. Instead, members of the band, old boyfriends, rock critics, musicians in other groups, close friends, spouses (and more) have a say. Their memories create the images of the characters and situations. Ultimately, it works.

As told through the eyes of others, readers learn about Daisy’s early family life, her entrée as a groupie in the LA music scene and her reckless lifestyle. She’s a force with a beautiful voice and a talent for writing songs. Across the country, Billy Dunne and his younger brother Graham form a rock band, mostly playing gigs in bars. Billy is also a song writer, and unquestionably the band’s leader. The Six, representing the number in the group, slowly makes a name for itself and lands a record deal.

The narrative addresses the demons in Billy and Daisy’s lives, along with their personal and professional successes. Along the way, vulnerabilities, compassion and disdain are among the feelings the author exposes.

Music is the backdrop, from recording studios to packed auditoriums when the band tours. Yet, it’s the personalities of the characters that create the loudest impact.

Daisy Jones & the Six

Four Bookmarks

Ballantine Books, 2019

355 pages

Time and Truth   Leave a comment

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The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams is an entertaining novel with two separate plots spanning a century. The primary setting for both storylines is a London printing house for the Swansby Encyclopdaedic Dictionary.

In its heyday, Swansby employed dozens to research words and their definitions. Peter Winceworth’s job addresses the letter S. One-hundred years later, Mallory, a young intern, is tasked with determining which words are real. Her publisher, part of the same Swansby family,  has plans to digitize the dictionary.

Alternating between past and present, Peter and Mallory have distinct senses of humor, feelings of self-doubt and an apparent love of language. In an effort to exert a latent sense of power and personality, Peter invents words. These are what later keep Mallory busy.

Through her investigation, Mallory gains an understanding of the person behind the fictitious words. Although he is unknown to her, elements of his personality are revealed.

Williams begins each chapter with a letter from A to Z, each referring (in alphabetical order) to one of Peter’s concocted vocabulary. It’s a clever way of further connecting his work with Mallory’s.

Yet, not everything is rosy in either era. Peter is tormented for a lisp (he only pretends to have). This makes his efforts associated with S-words to be humiliating on the surface, but amusing since he could easily drop the speech impediment. Mallory’s torment comes in the form of repeated threatening phone calls.

The relationship across time is tied to fake words and people with real emotions.

The Liar’s Dictionary

Four Bookmarks

Doubleday, 2020

270 pages

Secrets in an Irish Village   Leave a comment

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The Searcher, like most of Tania French’s mysteries involves an Irish setting and new characters. Here it’s Cal Hooper, recently retired from the Chicago police force, in a remote village where he’s renovating a fixer-upper.

Hooper’s content to fish, repair his house and ready to mind his own business. His plans are interrupted when a local kid pleads for help in finding an older brother who disappeared months ago.

Despite efforts to not get involved, Hooper agrees to see what he can discover. Aware, he’s an outsider and not wanting to overstep local authorities or customs, Hooper goes about his investigation as stealthily as possible. It isn’t enough.

French’s description of Hooper’s run-down home, the harsh landscape and the village residents is like a travelogue designed to keep tourists away. Sure the area has some visual appeal, but little else going for it. Hooper soon learns he’s not as clandestine as he’d hoped in his efforts to locate the young man who’s gone missing.

In fact, he misreads the words and actions of most of those he encounters. He’s surprised when it’s clear the villagers, his neighbor in particular, are aware he helping the taciturn kid who showed up uninvited at his house.

Of course, the question, beyond the whereabouts of the missing person, is why everyone is keen to keep Hooper uninformed. French is a master at creating tension. The element of suspense veers towards the realm of thriller. It’s almost necessary to keep several lights on while reading.

The Searcher

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2020

451 pages

Save Room for Dessert and Snacks   Leave a comment

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I’m a cooking magazine and cookbook junkie. I like discovering new recipes and techniques, but I especially enjoy the narrative accompanying them. Ovenly is an excellent example of a cookbook with delectable recipes and engaging storytelling. It’s also the name of the authors’ New York City Bakery.

Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin are self-taught bakers. In her introduction, Patinkin writes, “… (recipes are) not just about food of a certain time, but also about relationships, culture and tradition.” Kaluga also shares her own insights. Many of the bakery items were adapted from recipes handed down from their grandmothers.

The pair met through a book group. Ovenly’s early days were auspicious relying on a borrowed kitchen and an old Ford Explorer in which they made deliveries. Slowly, they built their brand, established relationships with neighborhood artisans (including a local dairy and brewery, among others).

Except for the first chapter which offers baking tips with suggestions for equipment and ingredients to have on hand, subsequent chapters focus on specific baked goods: biscuits, muffins, cookies, you get the idea. While most are sweet, as the subtitle implies several are also savory like cheddar mustard scones and bacon and blue cheese quiche.

The chapter on bar snacks is a surprise given that everything else, even the non-sweet goods, are associated with bakeries; for example, flavored popcorns.

Most of the recipes, rest assured, appeal to sugar cravings. Easy-to-follow instructions, impressive color photographs, and personal stories introducing each chapter make this enjoyable and sweet tooth appealing!

Ovenly: Sweet and Savory Recipes from New York’s Most Creative Bakery

Park Row, 2021

Four Bookmarks

272 Pages